A popular local colorist during her lifetime, Katherine Chopin (1851-1904) is best known today for her psychological novel The Awakening (1899) and for such often-anthologized short stories as "Desiree's Baby" and "The Story of an Hour."
Chopin was born to a prominent St. Louis family. Her father died in a train accident when Chopin was four years old, and her childhood was most profoundly influenced by her mother and great-grandmother, who descended from French-Creole pioneers. Chopin also spent much time with her family's Creole and mulatto slaves, becoming familiar with their unique dialects. She read widely as a child, but was an undistinguished student at the convent school she attended. She graduated at age seventeen and spent two years as a belle of fashionable St. Louis society. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy Creole cotton factor, and moved with him to New Orleans. For the next decade, Chopin pursued the demanding social and domestic schedule of a Southern aristocrat, her recollections of which would later serve as material for her short stories. In 1880, financial difficulties forced Chopin's growing family to move to her father-in-law's home in Cloutierville, a small town in Natchitoches Parish located in Louisiana's Red River bayou region. There, Chopin's husband oversaw and subsequently inherited his father's plantations. Upon his death in 1883, Chopin insisted upon assuming his managerial responsibilities, which brought her into contact with almost every segment of the community, including the French-Acadian, Creole, and mulatto sharecroppers who worked the plantations. The impressions she gathered of these people and Natchitoches Parish life later influenced her fiction.
In the mid-1880s Chopin sold most of her property and left Louisiana to live with her mother in St. Louis. Family friends who found her letters entertaining encouraged Chopin to write professionally, and she began composing short stories. These early works evidence the influence of her favorite authors: the French writers Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, and Moliere. At this time Chopin also read the works of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spenser in order to keep abreast of trends in scientific thinking, and she began questioning her Roman Catholic faith as well as socially imposed mores and ethical restraints. After an apprenticeship marked by routine rejections, Chopin began having her stories published in the most popular American periodicals, including America, Vogue, and the Atlantic. The success of the collections Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897) solidified her growing reputation as an important local colorist. Financially independent and encouraged by success, Chopin turned to longer works. Although she had published the novel At Fault in 1890, that work displays many of the shortcomings of an apprentice novel and failed to interest readers or critics. Publishers later rejected a novel and a short story collection on moral grounds, citing their promotion of female self-assertion and sexual liberation. Undaunted, Chopin completed The Awakening, the story of a conventional wife and mother who, after gaining spiritual freedom through an extramarital affair, commits suicide when she realizes that she cannot reconcile her new self to society's moral restrictions. The hostile critical and public reaction to the novel largely halted Chopin's career; she had difficulty finding publishers for later works and was ousted from local literary groups. Demoralized, she wrote little during her last years.
The stories in Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection, largely reflect her skills as a local colorist and often center on the passionate loves of the Creoles and Acadians in her native Natchitoches Parish. For example, "A Lady of Bayou St. John" portrays a young widow who escapes the sexual demands of a suitor by immersing herself in memories of her dead husband, while "La Belle Zoraide" chronicles a mulatto slave's descent into madness after her mistress sells her lover and deprives her of their child. Recent critics occasionally detect in Bayou Folk the melodramatic conventions of popular magazine fiction. Nevertheless, they laud Chopin's meticulous description of setting, precise rendering of dialects, and objective point of view. In addition, commentators perceived in several stories universal themes that transcend the restrictions of regional fiction. One such story, the often-anthologized "Desiree's Baby," examines prejudice and miscegenation in its portrayal of Armand Aubigny, a proud aristocratic planter, and his wife Desiree. When she gives birth to a son possessing African characteristics, Aubigny assumes that Desiree is of mixed racial heritage and turns his wife and child out of his house. However, while burning his wife's possessions, Armand discovers a letter written by his mother, which reveals that she and therefore Armand belong to the race "cursed by the brand of slavery."
In A Night in Acadie Chopin continued to utilize the Louisiana settings that figured in Bayou Folk. However, the romanticism of the earlier collection is replaced by a greater moral ambivalence concerning such issues as female sexuality, personal freedom, and social propriety. Bert Bender observed that Chopin's "characters transcend their socially limited selves by awakening to and affirming impulses that are unacceptable by convention. Unburdened of restricting social conventions, her characters come to experience the suffering and loneliness, as well as the joy, of their freedom; for the impulses that they heed are a mere part of a world in which change and natural selection are first principles." For example, in "A Respectable Woman" a happily married woman becomes sexually attracted to Gouvernail, a family friend invited by her husband to visit their home for a week. Disturbed by her feelings, she is relieved when Gouvernail leaves, but as the following summer approaches, she encourages her husband to contact him again, ambiguously promising that "this time I shall be very nice to him." Chopin later expanded upon this essentially amoral perception of adultery in "The Storm," a story written near the end of her career, which portrays a woman's extra-marital affair as a natural impulse devoid of moral significance.
Chopin also explored the connection between selfhood and marriage in A Night in Acadie. Several stories reflect her contention that security and love cannot compensate for a lack of control over one's destiny. In "Athenaise," for instance, the title character, a naive young bride, leaves Cazeau, her devoted yet insensitive husband, twice; first returning home to her parents, then traveling to New Orleans. Although Cazeau retrieves her from her parents, he refuses to follow her to the city after drawing an unsettling parallel between his actions toward her and his father's treatment of a runaway slave. A month after arriving in New Orleans, however, Athenaise learns that she is pregnant, and, thinking of her husband, experiences "the first purely sensuous tremor of her life." Now accepting her role as wife and mother, she reconciles with Cazeau. While some critics contend that Chopin likely formulated this conclusion, like other happy endings to her stories, to appease the moral sensibilities of her editors and publishers, most regard it as an appropriate ending to an incisive portrait of the limitations and rewards of marriage.
Early reviewers of A Night in Acadie objected to the volume's sensuous themes. Similar concerns were later raised by publishers who rejected Chopin's next volume, A Vocation and a Voice. Although Chopin continuously pursued its publication until her death, the volume did not appear as a single work until 1991. In these stories Chopin largely abandons local setting to focus upon the psychological complexity of her characters. Tales such as "Two Portraits," "Lilacs," and "A Vocation and a Voice," examine contrary states of innocence and experience and ways that society divides rather than unites the two. In "The Story of an Hour," the best known work in the collection, Chopin returns to the issue of marriage and selfhood in her portrayal of Mrs. Mallard, a woman who learns that her husband has died in a train accident. Initially overcome by grief, she gradually realizes that his "powerful will" no longer restricts her and that she may live as she wishes. While she joyfully anticipates her newfound freedom, however, her husband returns, the report of his death a mistake, and Mrs. Mallard collapses upon seeing him. Doctors then ironically conclude that she died of "heart failure—of the joy that kills." In evaluating A Vocation and a Voice, Barbara C. Ewell observed: "[The] collection, which includes some of Chopin's most experimental stories, reveals how intently she had come to focus her fiction on human interiority, on the interplay of consciousness and circumstance, of unconscious motive and reflexive action. Such psychological elements, combined with technical control, indicate a writer not only in command of her craft but fully in tune with the intellectual currents of her time. In many ways, A Vocation and a Voice represents the culmination of Chopin's talents as a writer of the short story."
The Awakening is considered Chopin's best work as well as a remarkable novel to have been written during the morally uncompromising America of the 1890s. Psychologically realistic, The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a conventional wife and mother who experiences a spiritual epiphany and an awakened sense of independence that change her life. The theme of sexual freedom and the consequences one must face to attain it is supported by sensual imagery that acquires symbolic meanings as the story progresses. This symbolism emphasizes the conflict within Pontellier, who realizes that she can neither exercise her new-found sense of independence nor return to life as it was before her spiritual awakening: the candor of the Creole community on Grand Isle, for example, is contrasted with the conventional mores of New Orleans; birds in gilded cages and strong, free-flying birds are juxtaposed; and the protagonist selects for her confidants both the domesticated, devoted Adele Ratignolle and the passionate Madame Reisz, a lonely, unattractive pianist. The central symbol of the novel, the sea, also provides the frame for the main action. As a symbol, the sea embodies multiple pairs of polarities, the most prominent being that it is the site of both Edna Pontellier's awakening and suicide.
After the initial furor over morality and sexuality in The Awakening had passed, the novel was largely ignored until the 1930s, when Daniel S. Rankin published a study of Chopin's works that included a sober assessment of The Awakening's high literary quality and artistic aims. During the succeeding decades, critical debate surrounding The Awakening has focused on Chopin's view of women's roles in society, the significance of Pontellier's awakening, her subsequent suicide, and the possibility of parallels between the lives of Chopin and her protagonist. George Arms, for example, has contended that Chopin was a happily married woman and devoted mother whose emotional life bore no resemblance to Pontellier's, while Per Seyersted has noted her compelling secretive, individualistic nature and her evident enjoyment of living alone as an independent writer. Priscilla Allen has posited that male critics allow their preconceptions about "good" and "bad" women to influence their interpretations of Chopin's novel, arguing that they too often assume that Edna's first priority should have been to her family and not to herself. Like Allen, Seyersted brings a feminist interpretation to The Awakening, and points out that the increasing depiction of passionate, independent women in Chopin's other fiction supports the theory that she was in fact concerned about the incompatibility of motherhood and a career for women living during the late nineteenth century. These questions about Chopin's depictions of women's roles in society have led to a debate about the significance of Pontellier's suicide. The ambivalence of the character as she wrestles with the new choices that confront her has left the suicide open to many interpretations. Carol P. Christ, like Seyersted, interprets the death as a moral victory and a social defeat—the act of a brave woman who cannot sacrifice her life to her family, but will not cause her children disgrace by pursuing a scandalous course. In a contrasting assessment of Pontellier's choice to die, James H. Justus likens the protagonist's gradual withdrawal from society and responsibility to a regression into childhood selfishness because she refuses to compromise and cannot control her urge for self-assertion. Often compared to the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Pontellier differs primarily in her desire for selfhood, even at the risk of loneliness, while Madame Bovary seeks romantic fulfillment.
Once considered merely an author of local-color fiction, Chopin is today recognized for her pioneering examination of sexuality, individual freedom, and the consequences of action—themes and concerns important to many later twentieth-century writers. While their psychological examinations of female protagonists have made Chopin's short stories formative works in the historical development of feminist literature, they also provide a broad discussion of a society that denied the value of sensuality and female independence. Per Seyersted asserted that Chopin "was the first woman writer in America to accept sex with its profound repercussions as a legitimate subject of serious fiction. In her attitude towards passion, she represented a healthy, matter-of-fact acceptance of the whole of man. She was familiar with the newest developments in science and in world literature, and her aim was to describe—unhampered by tradition and authority—man's immutable impulses. Because she was vigorous, intelligent, and eminently sane, and because her background had made her morally tolerant, and socially secure, she could write with a balance and maturity, a warmth and humor not often found in her contemporaries."
Further Reading on Katherine Chopin
Cather, Willa, The World and the Parish, Volume II: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902, edited by William M. Curtin, University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
Chopin, Kate, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin (two volumes), edited by Per Seyersted, Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Chopin, Kate, The Storm and Other Stories, with The Awakening edited by Seyersted, Feminist Press, 1974.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color, 1865-1917, Gale, 1988.
Diamond, Arlyn and Lee R. Edwards, The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 12: American Realists and Naturalists, 1982, Volume 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, 1988.